Thursday, October 11, 2012

Knots Landing season 3

I had occasion to rewatch Knots Landing Season 3 over the summer, and when I was done, I thought of the film The Way We Were, with Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Not of the actual film, but of Pauline Kael's original review in The New Yorker, where she referred to it as "a torpedoed ship full of gaping holes which comes snugly into port." I don't think I could imagine a better description of Knots Landing Season 3. It's a fascinating season: the only one that I enjoy much more today than I did when it originally aired. In 1981-82, its unusual device of using standalone episodes to advance serialized story-lines felt disorienting and at times frustrating; now, knowing what to expect, I can look beyond it and see that Knots Landing both began and ended with that season. It's the season where the show finds its voice and its pacing; it's also the last season of the original format, a series powered by the claustrophobic energy of a cul-de-sac.

Knots Landing's first two seasons are shaky ones, as the show struggles with consistency and tone. Season 1 is mostly episodic, and although there are some strong standalones, it's only in the final four episodes that the show manages to solidify its approach. Season 2 is a mess. With its sister soap Dallas enjoying a tidal wave of publicity (in the wake of J.R.'s shooting), the Knots showrunners go serialized, but it's like they'd never seen a soap before: the pacing is so fast that there's no time to respond to anything, to root for anyone, to root against anyone. The world established in Season 1 -- a land of looser morals, where betrayal is common and often forgiven -- doesn't necessarily lend itself to drama; it lends itself to incident. The top of Season 2 is busy, but uninvolving -- and when the lagging ratings midway through prompt a sudden return to standalones, the writers pull out all the punches with "special episodes": cancer scares, hostage crises. At the end of the season, one of the core characters (Sid Fairgate, pillar of the community) is targeted by criminals, who tamper with his brakes, and he goes over a cliff (that's the "cliffhanger"). Creator David Jacobs noted at the time that a good part of their audience went over that cliff, too -- i.e., they bailed on the series -- and I don't think he's wrong.

After two seasons in which Knots feels rudderless, you're forgiven for fearing that it might never find its way -- but Season 3 comes along and makes swift, clever repairs that transform the series. It features eight solid episodes up front, a bit of a muddle in the middle, and a late-season arc that stacks up with the series' best. After the uncertainties of Season 1 and the wrong-headedness of Season 2, that's far more than anyone could have predicted.

In case you're just joining us, here's all you need to know to appreciate a look back at Season 3. Knots began with four married couples living in a Southern California cul-de-sac: there were the stable ones (Sid and Karen Fairgate), the troubled ones (Richard and Laura Avery), the new arrivals from Texas (Gary and Valene Ewing), and the twentysomethings (Kenny and Ginger Ward). In Season 2, Sid's divorced kid sister Abby was added to the neighborhood: the requisite vixen and troublemaker. Season 2 ends with Sid going over that cliff, and Abby's ex-husband kidnapping their kids -- it's an easy place to pick up the story-line. There are essentially three longterm plots in Season 3. There's Karen (played by Michele Lee) mourning the loss of her husband. (Spoiler: he dies.) There's Laura (Constance McCashin), who's been stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship, summoning up the strength to leave. And best of all, there's Abby (Donna Mills) inserting herself into Gary and Val's marriage.

The Val-Gary-Abby triangle is what most folks remember about Knots Landing, and for good reason. Gary and Val, played by Ted Shackelford and Joan Van Ark, were brought over from Dallas (which Jacobs had also masterminded), with a backstory about finding each other again after decades spent apart. Their marriage seemed unshakable; during the first few seasons, you figured only a force of nature could drive them apart -- but when Gary and Abby teamed up in Season 3 on a business venture that appealed to his ambition and his altruism, all bets were off. Val offered Gary safety and security; Abby offered risk and thrills -- and for Gary, the alcoholic who lived life on the edge, it was an impossible choice. It was the sturdiest of soap triangles because both sides were well-supported: you could argue that Gary was his most stable with Val, but you could also argue, equally persuasively, that he was his most dynamic with Abby. Which Gary Ewing do you prize most? In the season's most memorable confrontation, in one of the series' best episodes, "China Dolls," Abby and Val square off; Val needs to know what kind of hold Abby has on her husband. When they go at it, they fight for Gary in terms of how they see him and what they can offer him -- and by the time they're done, the viewer is just as torn as Gary.

Those are the three key plots -- Karen mourning Sid, Laura wrestling with her marriage to Richard, and Abby coming between Gary and Val -- and by season's end, they've all been spectacularly successful. Getting there, though, has been agony at times. Ann and Ellis Marcus were brought on as headwriters in Season 3 -- they were seasoned pros, with nearly a half-century of TV credits between them. Ellis had scripted everything from Lassie to Leave It to Beaver, from Mannix to Mission: Impossible; he was a master of the one-hour format. But it was Ann Marcus who was the season's ace-in-the-hole. She had overseen the daytime dramas Days of Our Lives and Search for Tomorrow, and won a Primetime Emmy in 1976 for headwriting the great soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Because of her background in soaps, Marcus understood -- as the writers didn't in Season 2 -- that on shows like this, the pacing shouldn't be furious. The waiting is part of the fun: the simmering tensions, the delayed gratification. And clear-cut motivations are key: we need to understand why the characters behave the way they do, and -- even when their actions aren't admirable -- we need to empathize. Season 3 has all that, but parts of it also feel cautious and confused. Marcus is renowned as one of the great plotters of the soap world (it's why when your show is a shambles, as Knots was in Season 2, and again in Season 13, you bring her in to save it, because she'll turn dross into gold), but notably, the first half of Season 3 doesn't feel much like an Ann Marcus series at all. Every time a good plotline gets going, and you tune in the following week, awaiting a follow-up, it's nowhere in sight; sometimes promising plotlines disappear for three or four episodes at a time.

The reason? Well, Ann Marcus reveals in her autobiography that when she and her husband were approached to take over Knots, they were told it was "more an anthology than a soap" -- meaning, the Executive Producers didn't want to repeat the mistakes of Season 2 by turning Knots, once more, into a continuing drama. But of course, why bring soap giant Ann Marcus on board if you don't want to go serialized? Why not trust that she -- far more than the inexperienced story editors in Season 2 -- might be exactly the one to do it, and do it right? Nonetheless, the Marcuses accepted the assignment they were given, and adhered to the format of Season 1 and the latter half of Season 2: standalones with A- and B-plots, and even the occasional C-plot. But this much seems clear: they didn't want to do a static season where the characters basically tread water for 22 episodes. So they jigger with the format. They keep the episodes self-contained, but see to it that most include at least one plot thread that's dynamic, and part of a larger seasonal arc. In episode 5, for example, which wraps up Abby's hunt for her missing children, the two subplots are Richard being asked to supply "entertainment" for a party his brokerage firm is hosting, and Karen -- eager to try her skills on the floor at Knots Landing Motors -- selling a fleet of cars to a man distilling methanol as a cheaper substitute for gasoline; both subplots (Richard pimping for his bosses and a business opportunity involving alternative fuels) will resurface as A-plots in two and six episodes, respectively. (Those story-lines will then disappear for a spell, while others get their time in the spotlight, and reemerge when the episodic format permits.) The season never goes fully serialized, but at the end of 22 episodes, the characters -- as in the best soaps -- are in far different places from where they started.

The practice of telling serialized stories through standalone episodes has since become commonplace (Gilmore Girls practically honed it to an art form), but in 1981-82, it was a novel approach, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there's clumsiness and uncertainty in its execution. On first viewing, it's hard to know which story-lines are ongoing, and which are designed as one-offs -- and if a promising plot gets underway, there's no telling when (or if) it'll return. (As the season progresses, the writers grow more adept at dropping the occasional line of dialogue to convey that even if a plotline isn't focal, it's still advancing offscreen.) Once you accept the idiosyncrasies of the story-telling, though, the episodes themselves are rarely less than engaging, and a dramatic improvement over those of Season 2; they range from a touching Christmas tale to a splendid showcase for famed film actor Lew Ayres, then a sprightly 73. You have only one dud in 22 episodes ("The Rose and the Briar," which goes beyond the improbable to the outlandish, as Val's mama takes Vegas by storm, to cheering crowds) -- how many Knots seasons can you say that about? And even that one is partially redeemed by its subplot, as Abby starts to make a move on Gary, and although he doesn't see it, Valene does.

The season’s midway mark, “Power Play,” offers the perfect example of the story-telling triumphs and annoyances that sometimes go hand in hand. It’s a dynamite episode, in which Gary and Abby’s plans to partner on the methanol business are not only introduced, but become instantly focal. It explores the issue from all angles: we see Gary’s exhilaration at doing something potentially lucrative, admirable and defining; we see Abby enthused not only by the business opportunity, but by the chance it affords her to further ensnare Gary; and we see Val’s reasonable concern that Gary is risking too much, too fast. And the other core characters are splendidly used as well. As Abby makes plans to fly down to Mexico to join Gary, she stops at Richard’s to ask some legal advice, and Laura is quick to suggest that Richard join her; Laura isn’t about to have Abby alone in Mexico with her friend’s husband. And once Abby and Richard arrive in Mexico, Richard shows unexpected wisdom: anticipating the personal quandary Gary will soon find himself in, he calls upon his own experiences with Abby the previous season to offer Gary some advice. While back in Knots Landing, Karen’s trying to get to the heart of Val’s unease, and Val admits it’s not so much the business side of things -- it’s Abby. Trying to reassure her, Karen brushes it aside: "Gary isn't interested in Abby in that way. And Abby -- well, she wouldn't. Abby is just -- Abby.” And Val, turning it around on her, responds solemnly, "I know."

“Power Play” is a thrilling episode that makes you eager for the follow-up. And in the next episode, "Possibilities," the methanol business isn’t even referenced. Instead, it’s a two-pronged episode that takes on Ginger’s interest in a singing career and Karen’s first date after Sid’s death. But here’s the thing. Both plots are well-handled, with (as with most of Season 3) a minimum of histrionics and an abundance of detail. Michele Lee is so good: dressing for her date, bursting into funny tears, brushing off her new suitor at the end. And Kim Lankford is the best she’ll be until Season 4 -- it’s a terrific showcase. Her excitement at discovering the extent of her vocal talent is infectious, and the song she’s given (Leslie Pearl's "Anything But Yes Is Still a No") suits her voice and her personality; you understand why an up-and-coming record producer might be interested in her. (It’s all so much better suited to Lankford’s talents than fending off a stalker or being held hostage.) And when she and Kenny talk at the end about how having a new baby and a nice home isn’t enough for him, so why should it be enough for her, it perfectly captures an era; it's the kind of conversation that was being held in households all over America. I hadn’t seen "Possibilities" in a while, and during my recent rewatch, was surprised how much I enjoyed it. But then I remembered enjoying it in 1982, on its own terms, and mostly being disappointed that none of the Abby-Gary intrigue from “Power Play” (which had been left open-ended) continued into this episode. (The threads of the methanol business are ultimately woven through the following episode, but it doesn't become focal again for another three.)

As noted, the maddening thing about Season 3 is that if you love a plotline, there's no way of knowing if it'll be furthered -- or even referenced -- in the following episode; the comforting thing about Season 3 is that you can pretty much depend on the fact that whatever the next episode is -- whoever the focus, whatever the situation -- it’ll be entertaining and nuanced, digging deep into character to provide fresh looks at familiar themes. You'll probably learn more about at least a few of the core characters, and you might just see a bit of yourself in there as well. And that's a pretty damn nice thing to be able to count on.

And all that said, if the first half of Season 3 seems choppy from a plotting perspective, it does wonders for the characters. In addition to her story-telling gifts, Ann Marcus had a knack for showcasing actors and displaying their characters' most intriguing traits, and that talent is everywhere on display in Season 3. In the previous season, too many of the characters had seemed driven by plot: lacking clear-cut motivations that might make their actions rootable or, at the very least, sympathetic. And the stories too often played to their least attractive qualities. In Season 3, the characters once again feel estimable and inviting; you look forward to time spent in their company. A continuing theme in Season 3 is self-empowerment: the characters' determination to take control of their lives, set goals and make positive choices. It's Karen coming to terms with sudden widowhood, opening herself up to new experiences and reinventing herself as a businesswoman; it's Abby and Gary launching into an enterprise that might not only prove lucrative but consequential; it's Val finding fulfillment as a writer, and Ginger as a singer -- and both of them discovering that creativity and self-expression trump their innate desire to please their spouses; and it's Richard and Laura finally sitting down and assessing the state of their marriage: how it’s gotten to this point, and can it be saved? All the characters seems rich and full-blooded in Season 3; we can't help but admire them, even when their actions bring them into conflict with each other. And when their actions do bring them into conflict with each other, whom do we root for?

The Marcuses understand from decades in the business that you can't ask viewers to invest in characters they don't care about. In Season 2, Richard had been trashed almost from the get-go: screwing up Sid's court case, sabotaging his own career, then pursuing an affair with Abby, which he flaunted in his wife's face. Richard had always been the cul-de-sac's resident sleazeball, but Season 2 still managed to decimate him. Season 3 is careful to reestablish Richard's good points. We see him look after Karen while Sid is in the hospital, and after he dies; we see him use his legal skills to help Val rescue her mother, Abby recover her children, and Gary get his new business off the ground. We even get a half-dozen episodes of him as devoted husband and father. And then when his mood sours, the writers ensure that we understand why, as we watch his new law firm cut him off at the knees, relegating him to the role of social director and company pimp. Richard is given a huge character upgrade in Season 3: no longer (merely) a rotten husband, but a man who -- as we glimpsed briefly near the end of Season 1 -- feels trapped by his surroundings, denied both advancement and validation. And his season trajectory makes him not merely relatable, but worthy of our compassion, as everything that he feels defines him is stripped away, bit by bit, until he's forced to reassess and rebuild. "Are you with me, or are you with them?" he begs Laura late in the season, as he's drowning in isolation and perceived persecution. Who could imagine, at the beginning of the season, that it's Richard who'd emerge as its most tragic figure?

Val, too, gets a marvelous make-over in Season 3. In Season 2, she'd been a gullible fool, letting Gary walk all over her as she stood by, helpless and oblivious. Knowing Gary is going to get caught up in another business venture in Season 3 (although this time a noble one rather than a shady one, which makes all the difference for his character), the writers give Val her own set of challenges to meet -- starting with making peace with her mother. The reintroduction of Julie Harris as Val's mama Lilimae Clements is inspired (even if her integration into the cast is a bit shaky at first). As Valene is forced to hear her mother romanticize a past that never existed, and cling to hopes of a career that will never happen, Van Ark shows us how Val's upbringing has left its scars, but left her stronger for it. Valene, who seemingly had no backbone in Season 2, develops a sturdy one in Season 3, taking on any challenge head-on, whether it's the pain of her past, or Gary's absenteeism and dismissiveness, or Abby's unsubtle pursuit of her husband. (Van Ark is so vibrant, she even salvages a subpar Val-centric episode like "Cricket" -- she makes Val's single-minded need to save a troubled girl such an outgrowth of her own childhood disappointments that you can't help but cheer her on.) And by season's end, it's Valene -- of all people -- who's become the poster girl for the series' season-long theme of empowerment, and female empowerment in particular. At one point, late in the season, she stresses to Ginger and Laura that their careers are important to them, as they should be, but that she's different -– she can't see putting anything ahead of her marriage. And then she makes a decision, that very same episode, that does just that. For Val, it doesn't come down to marriage vs. career. It comes down to "what makes her feel good about herself?" What gives her a sense of self-worth? Valene doesn't think in terms of the tenets of feminism; she just naturally, intuitively embraces them.

And then there's Karen Cooper Fairgate, who's reborn in Season 3, and who basically gives the show its model for moving forward. TV Guide, in a cover story on Michele Lee in 1982, noted that before the season began, as the writers were planning out the story of Karen's sudden widowhood, Lee sat down with Jacobs and Ann Marcus and shared the details of her recent divorce from James Farentino, describing her stages of grief and the process of adapting and rebuilding. "Everything she said was incorporated into the scripts," TV Guide reported. Whether indeed "everything" was incorporated is hard to say -- it may be so much showbiz hyperbole -- but it marks a newfound effort in Season 3 to infuse the story-lines with greater depth and detail, and let them unfold at a pace that seems fueled by the characters, and not by the demands of the story-telling. The season makes the most of every event in Karen's life -- her reunion with an old boyfriend, her first (and only) visit to grief therapy, her first date, and her first kiss -- culminating in the moment she's finally prepared to take off her wedding ring and stop defining herself as "Sid Fairgate's wife." Throughout the season we get glimpses of Karen adjusting to life without Sid: often she's focal; sometimes she's only captured in subplots, or in scattered scenes -- but whenever the show seems to be drifting, Karen is there to anchor it. Ironically, the departure of Don Murray (who played Sid, and requested off the show) turns out to be a blessing, because it gives the creative team a template for doing slow-burner stories in a fast-paced world; it becomes a vivid reminder -- one that future headwriters will hold to -- that even in a cozy cul-de-sac at the tail end of the sexual revolution, where sometimes it feels that everything can be made better by a quick dip in the hot tub, there's potential for stories of real consequence. The saga of Karen's instant widowhood is an unqualified triumph. The stages of denial, anger and acceptance are played out without being spelled out; they seem calculated to give both Karen and the audience proper time to grieve, and indeed, by the time Karen is at Sid's grave, months after his death, telling him she's ready to move on, the viewer is finally ready too. (Karen's journey is handled so smoothly that you don't fully realize how effective it's been until it's over.)

As an aside, I think I've always undervalued Michele Lee's Emmy-nominated performance that season. I knew she was impressive; now I find her extraordinary. She carefully navigates all the potential acting traps: her weeping after Sid's death could be too theatrical, but it's not; her final farewell at his gravesite (when she gives herself permission to move on) could come off as self-aware, but it doesn't. They're splendidly played. And in all the "small" moments, she consistently brings fresh shadings. When her old boyfriend Teddy comes to town and -- after a night spent talking with Karen, newly widowed -- brushes aside her hair and kisses her on the cheek, she winces ever so slightly, as if just the thought of being comforted is painful. You're disarmed and impressed by the acting choice, and marvel at how subtly yet persuasively she pulls it off. (Her performances in Season 3 are full of moments like that: delicate, yet precise.) Murray's exit liberates Lee. The two made a convincing pair, but his soft-spoken manner meant she had to continually moderate her responses, to keep from seeming too abrasive. The story of Sid's death unleashes her, allowing her a story-line that excuses and even encourages the fits of rage, self-involvement and self-righteousness that sometimes tripped up her character in the first two seasons. And at the same time, because she's no longer forced to contrast a more measured partner by being "the louder one," she's allowed moments of fragility and warmth that we'd rarely glimpsed before. The reinvention of Karen proves so successful that the writers ensure -- when it's time for her to meet someone new the following season -- that they create a character who doesn't diminish the "new" Lee: who plays to her strengths, as she had to play to Murray's.

Karen coming to terms with her loss is at the heart of the first two-thirds of Season 3, and the showrunners mine every moment skillfully -- and wisely, just as Karen's arc comes to a close, the other two plots take center stage. Up to that point, the Val-Gary-Abby triangle and Laura and Richard's turbulent marriage have been turning up in fits and starts; at times, it's been difficult to judge where things stand. They've seemed like promising but elusive plotlines. (The drawback of serializing story-lines through standalones is that we keep missing key steps along the way. Laura and Richard reach an impasse in episode 7; two weeks later, the next time we hear from them, they've decided to give their marriage another try. What happened in the week between? Well, other characters took precedence. Episode 8's A-plot found Karen bonding with a widower; the B-plot showed Kenny and Ginger, dealing with the stress of a newborn, reverting to old, bad habits. There had been no time to check in on the Avery's, so when we return to them in episode 9, we receive an update via exposition. It's this sort of fractured story-telling that feels unsettling in Season 3; the story-lines are always in motion, but the episodic format means that the characters aren't always around to play them out.) But once the final third of the season hits, the headwriters have the characters where they want them, and are ready to inch Knots ever closer to serialized drama. Their best soap instincts kick in, and the results are bracing.

In the season's fifteenth episode, "Best Intentions," Laura has discovered she's pregnant; she was ready to leave Richard, and now she's carrying his child. It's as common a soap dilemma as any, but the series takes a hard, honest look at her options. It digs deep, like so much of Season 3. Laura has decided not to tell Richard about the baby, to simply say that the marriage is over and go. She confides in Karen, who promises support, but as Laura leaves Karen's house, Karen can't resist playing devil's advocate, and the two of them end up in the alleyway between their homes, shivering in the night air. Karen knows she's being intrusive, but doesn't care: "You have to tell Richard. You can't just have an abortion without letting him know." Laura resists, and Karen pushes, "I'm not saying you have to ask his permission, but you have to talk to him. I mean, like it or not, you're in this thing together." Laura quips, "Oh there is nothing together about this," and Karen one-ups her: "Hey, how'd you get pregnant, playing solitaire?" Laura keeps making light: "Well, when you put a couple in the same bed night after night, the law of averages" -- but Karen refuses to let her off the hook: "If you have the abortion without discussing it with Richard, you're going to regret it. I mean, even if he never finds out about it -- you're going to feel guilty and bitter -- and if he ever finds about it... well, either way, it's just going to lead to bitterness." And that's the last thing Laura wants to hear: the truth. "So? The marriage is over," and she tries to escape, but Karen persists, "If the marriage is over, who's to say divorce can't be civil? Try -- try to save something." Leave it to Karen, her best friend, to be principled and reasonable and stubborn; aren't best friends just supposed to tell you what you want to hear? "I hate you," Laura tells Karen, with a mix of sarcasm and sincerity, and Karen responds, with guilt and relief, "I know."

Later that night, and into the following morning, Laura and Richard have their own heart-to-heart about communication and expectations -- and about whether, on a basic level, their marriage can be saved. For Richard, the arrival of a new baby promises a fresh start, and momentarily, Laura finds herself swept up in his dream. But through the course of the second day, she comes to realize that it's his dream, not hers, and that the fundamental issues that had scuttled their marriage still remain. She pulls away, reasserting her original plan: to terminate the pregnancy. But just hearing the word "abortion" hits a nerve, and Richard strikes Laura -- a swift and heavy blow. Even at his worst, Richard has never resorted to violence; he and Laura are left so stunned that they feel obligated to make sense out of his response. And when Richard talks about their son Jason, and what a gift he's been, and how rushing too quickly into an abortion might deny them the chance to raise someone equally wonderful, Laura is prompted to reconsider her choice: not for Richard's sake, but for her own. She'll have the baby.

The following night, Richard goes out to dinner with Karen and reveals that the moment he hit Laura, he had an epiphany: for the first time, he's able to step back and see himself as others see him. He recognizes, at last, how abusive he's been to his wife, and vows to continue to self-analyze and self-correct. Karen, who's always been his biggest champion, assures him, "You're a nice guy," but he insists: "I'm not, but I'm trying" -- and it's the first time in the series that we believe him, and believe in him. After three seasons, Richard seems to have gained a measure of self-awareness that had always been beyond his grasp -- and although we should know better, we find ourselves willing to reinvest in his marriage. And later that night, Richard comes home to start a new life with his wife -- and she's moved out. Richard could have said pretty much anything in the world to Laura, and it wouldn't have made a difference; for her, the love was gone -- what was there to say or acknowledge beyond that? Richard believed his newfound clarity would salvage his marriage; we'd begun to hope it would -- the writers set us up.

The writers play with us constantly in the final third of Season 3; they keep our expectations and even our loyalties forever shifting. Running parallel to the Richard-Laura drama in "Best Intentions" is the germ of a plot that will propel the Val-Gary-Abby triangle to its conclusion, as Val -- who's been taking a course in creative writing -- pens a tell-all book about Gary's family. It's the start of the "Val as author" story-line that will sustain many a season, but it never again generates plot as nimbly as it does here. After months of watching Abby flirt with her husband, Val desperately needs some positive reinforcement, a little ego-stroking -- and she gets that with the initial response to her manuscript. But the book is clearly going to drive a wedge between her and Gary -- who, understandably, doesn't want a thinly disguised exposé in which his family is portrayed as (in his words) "villains and fools" to ever see the light of day. We can see that as Val pursues publishing her book, she's risking her marriage. But do we want to deny Val the self-fulfillment she so desperately craves? Abby and Gary, meanwhile, have solidified their plans to power automobiles with methanol (the show’s most marvelous MacGuffin), which could prove not only lucrative, but valuable in combating the oil crisis; are we really gonna root against that? All three parties in the Val-Gary-Abby triangle share culpability for its outcome (the show is careful not to strip the story-line down to a fight between "good Val" and "evil Abby"), yet we never resent them for the choices they make. That's its genius.

The best Knots story-lines -- like the three that dominate Season 3 -- veer in unexpected directions; you delight at how often the writers pull the rug out from under you. As the season heads into its final stretch, that happens so often, you're left breathless. The insights grow more startling, the pacing more fluid. Val's novel is accepted for publication in a knockout episode called "Exposé," in which -- in classic soap opera fashion -- Gary and Val reach a detente about the future of her book, then Abby, to serve her own ends, undermines it. And in the following episode, Richard and Laura's story-line comes to a head in "Night." (John Pleshette wrote it for himself, as he did so many of the Richard-centric episodes.) Having lost his job, his wife and his dignity all in the space of a few weeks -- all while his neighbors have seemingly flourished in their quest for identity -- Richard has lost all sense of self. ("It's like a death, isn't it?" Karen commiserates, searching for common ground.) He invites Laura and their son Jason for dinner, then won't let them leave: banishing Jason to his room and threatening to hurt Laura unless she opens up to him. Pushed to the brink of a breakdown, he's still convinced the marriage can be saved if Laura can just answer the unanswerable questions: when did she stop loving him? And why? And when neighbors intervene, he threatens them at gunpoint, igniting a hostage situation, as police officers, a crisis negotiator and a SWAT team set up at the Fairgate home, intent on rescuing Laura and Jason. Every time I watch "Night," I feel like the Marcuses were determined to do a hostage drama that would make you forget the earlier, feeble effort in Season 2 (when criminals break into Val's house during Ginger's baby shower and hold the women at gunpoint) -- and indeed they do. A bravura piece of writing and acting, "Night" works because the conflict comes from within -- and that's the hallmark of all of Season 3: the crises that befall Karen, and Laura and Richard, and Val and Gary and Abby, are self-generated. The characters create their own drama. And that's truly where Season 3 gets it right.

The season reaches its climax in its penultimate episode, "China Dolls"; watching it again recently, I realized the series reaches its climax there, too -- or at least the series as David Jacobs conceived it. Nothing up to that point has prepared you for the cunning of "China Dolls" (written and directed by departing producer Joseph Wallenstein), which fast-tracks Gary and Abby's affair by delving into the desires, the failings and the frailties that draw them together. (In essence, Wallenstein accelerates the story-line by slowing down the pace; it's like no conjuring trick I've seen before or since.) As the episode begins, Gary feels confident in his ability to cope; if anything, he feels proud of -- even liberated by -- his ability to cheat without remorse: "Oh Abby, I'm handling it. Right now, I feel like I could handle anything." Across town, though, Laura is having a tougher time, second-guessing the events that led up to Richard's breakdown and wondering, could she have prevented it? Karen comes to visit, to ask her to look in on Richard at the sanitarium where he's recuperating, and Laura explodes in protest: "I'll get him a nurse. I'll help with the doctor payments. But I won't move back in with him. Damn it, Karen, this is so unfair." And Karen is quick to correct her: "Nobody said anything about you moving back in" -- but Laura is furiously fixating: "It's over. I don't love him. I moved out. It was clean. It's just that I feel so angry -- and what's worse, I feel guilty. I feel like somehow this was all my fault."

The institution of marriage weighs heavily on the characters in Season 3. It's not so easy to cheat on a spouse or end a marriage; at the end of the day, what good are all these new freedoms if we're hardwired for guilt? The C plot gently drives the point home, as Karen's brother Joe needs a date for a faculty dinner, and Kenny convinces him to ask Ginger, who's been clamoring for some downtime. ("We've got a real '80s marriage,” Kenny boasts. “Once in a while we each do our own thing.") At the end of an enjoyable evening together, Ginger realizes she wants Joe to kiss her. She knows better, but still: she’s longing for the thrill of a first kiss. And so is Joe, but he’s thoughtful enough to recognize that even if no one finds out, there'll be repercussions -- and Ginger, disappointed yet relieved, realizes he's right. Knots Landing Season 3 finds sensational drama in the world that David Jacobs created -- that world where the social constraints are looser and temptation is everywhere -- and it does so by recognizing the burden of freedom. It doesn’t impose an old-school morality; it doesn’t posture that Laura should stay with Richard, or that Gary should resist Abby. (On the contrary, Laura’s decision to leave Richard is clearly seen as a sign of her growth, and as Gary and Abby kiss amidst a soaring sax solo and a sexy storm, the camera practically basks in their love-making.) Season 3 simply mines the drama by recognizing that in an enlightened universe, there are more choices than ever, and all those choices come with consequences. So how do you choose? How do you know what the right path is?

Sometimes, if you’re Joe Cooper, you get out before you get in too deep. And sometimes, if you’re Gary Ewing, you don’t -- and you’re trapped. Midway through the episode, as Gary sees Val making an effort to salvage their marriage and realizes he's done nothing to meet her halfway, his conscience gets the better of him, and he breaks things off with Abby. (Wallenstein is careful to show Abby crushed by Gary's rejection; she's put her heart into this relationship, and is as vulnerable to hurt as everyone else.) But he can't handle the consequences of that decision either. He's seen Abby with too many men since she moved into the cul-de-sac, and he knows she'll be moving on sooner than he can bear. His frustration, longing and jealousy are even worse than his guilt, and as night falls, he paces his living room like a caged animal, eyeing Abby's empty house, as Valene studies him from across the room. And when Abby returns home, and he rushes to her to find out where she's been -- and with whom -- Valene realizes the time for pretense is over. For days she's been trying to handle the situation in a non-confrontational manner: bottling her insecurities, using her mother as an outlet for her rage:

Lilimae: How long are going to shut your eyes to what's happening? Your man is out every night of the week, having meal meetings with another woman.
Valene: Mama, please, I don't need to hear this from you. What's going on with Gary and me is between us.
Lilimae: But surely you've noticed how strange he's been acting lately?
Valene: Mama, look, I have a delicate situation to deal with. Now he's upset with me for publishing my book, and we're trying to work things out, but it takes time and patience, and your meddling doesn't exactly give me confidence.
Lilimae: I just don't want to see you get hurt, sugar.
Valene: Good. Then don't say hurtful things to me.

But now she realizes that her discretion has cost her her self-respect. The next morning, she corners Gary while he's still in bed, determined to wrestle an explanation or admission from him, but when he bolts to the bathroom and slams the door behind him, she's left with only one choice. Oh sure, she could wait for Gary to come out, but Val is too fired up – she wants answers now. She marches down the stairs and out the front door, and her furious walk across the cul-de-sac, from her house to Abby's, is one of the series' most iconic images. If you care for a view, you can check out a clip from a French telecast, of all things -- as you don't need to speak French to appreciate the shot. It's what the early years of Knots Landing were all about -- the tensions that emerge and erupt in a small, closed community -- and it's a series high point.

And it's followed by the "most memorable confrontation" that I referred to earlier, in which Val demands, "Are you or are you not having an affair with my husband," and Abby, bluffing in her coolest, cruelest manner, admits nothing: "I'm not saying we're having an affair, and I'm not saying we're not. I am saying I can have him anytime I want." Val slaps her across the face, and it smarts: Abby didn't see that one coming. This is no Dynasty-style catfight; there's not an ounce of camp in the writing or playing. This is two admirable women so proud and so scared that they're reduced to inflicting pain on each other. (Abby reels from the slap, shocked that Val would go there, but Val's face betrays no regret; it's the only way she knows to share the hurt she's been feeling -- the hurt that Abby, as she sees it, has caused her.) The confrontation is brutal, and it's brilliant. And it's the clearest indication that if the writers didn't know exactly where they were going when they first plotted Season 3, they figured it out mighty fast, because when the moment comes, you feel like the show has been building up to it for an entire season.

As indeed it has.

With "China Dolls" and the season closer, "Living Dangerously," the third season of Knots Landing -- after a sometimes rocky journey -- comes snugly into port. And the show that David Jacobs created starts to reinvent itself; incoming showrunner Peter Dunne is charged with goosing the ratings by embracing the Dallas model of serialized drama and glitzier settings. Early in Season 4, Gary inherits a million dollars, and he and Abby move off the cul-de-sac and into a beach house; by year's end, all the characters are embroiled in a murder mystery -- and we are a far cry from where we started. (The reinvention of Knots ultimately solidifies in Season 5, the series' annus mirabilis, which has an operatic sweep unmatched by any other season, or any of its fellow primetime soaps -- but by then the series, marvelous as it is, bears little resemblance to the show that debuted.) Knots Landing Season 3 is lightning in a bottle. It fulfills the promise of Season 1 and avoids (and often corrects) the mistakes of Season 2. It validates David Jacobs' conviction that it's possible to transplant Scenes From a Marriage to Southern California, at the tail end of the sexual revolution, and create something with its own flavor, but that's equally eloquent, powerful and persuasive. Of all the Knots seasons, Season 3 is the one that best understands -- and illustrates, generally without melodrama -– how complex yet fragile marriages and families and friendships can be. Despite its story-telling oddities, it's a marvel.

Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 2, which pretty much mucks up everything; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 5, the show's annus mirabilis; Season 6, one of the series' best story-lines, and perhaps its greatest acting showcase; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; Season 10, the year the ratings rose; Season 11, in which the show jumps the tracks -- then jumps back; Season 12, a shot of pure adrenaline that soon fades; Season 13, an epic fail, and an epic save; and Season 14, in which Ann Marcus gives the series a glorious send-off.


  1. This post was brilliant and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It hurts me to see such a great essay with NO COMMENTS written in response to it. I am just getting started a blog all about KNOTS LANDING called Knots Blogging (I will insert an obvious plug for it in a second near the bottom of this post) and I deeply love the show. I am currently up to season three in my viewing (but have only just gotten started putting my essays about season one up; it's good to have a back catelog) and I'm glad to see someone else give the show some passion and respect.

    Also, I think I disagree with your central thesis and actually consider season three one of the worst of the series, yet you present such a great, well written, thoughful argument that I may have to reconsider (I am only about eight episodes deep right now).

    This post is about three years, but I just want you to know that I was delighted to find it today and I read it and thought, "Damn, this guy knows how to write!"

    Shameless plug alert: My blog can be located by just typing in [url][/url]

    1. Well that link clearly didn't work. Just type in and it'll pop right up.

    2. Really appreciate your comments, Brett. I write here for my own enjoyment, as a welcome distraction from my regular job. But I only write about things I feel passionate about, which, over the last few years, I've learned is a lot. Been enjoying your own blog, and will look forward to seeing what you have to say about Knots Season 3. As noted, it's not a season I loved when it first aired, as the semi-serialized approach felt awkward and unfamiliar; now that I've gotten used to it, I can look beyond it, and see how beautifully the characters are utilized, and how (ultimately) successful the story-lines are. For me, it's one of the true miracle seasons.

  2. I came back to reread these and wanted to comment in length as I have just recently rewatched Season 3. It is completely understandable to me why the erratic mix of soapy storylines and standalones would turn people off. For me though, the early years of KNOTS were often boring at its worst but was still a solid show...and frankly I would take the early years over the final seasons, even season 14 (I'll express my views on that post).

    Season 3 does have a very dark cloud over it thanks to Sid's death, but it is, as you said, the season in which Knots begins and dies. You can also see the quality change. Artistic flourishes pop up here and there....the writing even seems to step up more.

    Aside from SILVER SHADOWS, which was a rather dull episode though made with taste and class, the final third of the season represents Knots at high peak form. I first saw these episodes as a young kid...and I think that's why I've always been one to defend season 3 because it was the first season I got to see and it made me want to keep watching so it must not be ALL that bad.

    The death of Sid was one of the best things that could've happened to Knots. It may have taken them some time to work around it but it paid off tremendously. It's funny how death was a topic that brought such riches to the show....not just Sid but obviously Jock dying on DALLAS as that led to Gary achieving wealth and of course the murder of Ciji set off a chain of events that led into the epic season 5.

    I'm rambling on now but so be it. The moment of Val leaving Gary at the end of the season is so strong and is also one of those decisions that paid off in spades....and I would say they did a good job with keeping them apart, although I firmly feel they should NEVER have brought in Danny. Val and Gary should have began dating right after the Jill storyline ended and then got married during season 11. That's my opinion.

    ill just stop while I'm ahead haha.

    1. So delighted you returned, Anthony, and doubly delighted to read your comments. FYI, I watched Season 3 when it first aired, and had much the same response you did. Up until then, I had been an interested -- but not necessarily engaged -- viewer, but when the final third of the season hit, it seemed like the series really caught fire for the first time. And watching it, you recalled all the little moments along the way that had led you there. I think you're right: the writing does improve in Season 3. A lot of the freelancers who did one or two scripts a year for Knots at that time easily do their best work in Season 3; they really step up their game. It's interesting: when you read interviews with the Knots creators, they always talk about how they "struggled" in Season 3, but I don't see the struggle. I see them trying to interweave some compelling longterm story arcs with some strong standalone episodes, and although their objective is not always clear, the stories themselves are very solid. I think that was part of the Marcuses' resolve. How do you build an audience? With strong standalones. How do you keep them engaged? With a couple slow-burn story arcs. And they were such good soap writers, they knew just how to do that.

      And yes, Lechowick and Latham should have just let Gary and Val reunite in Season 10, but I think by that point, the production team had convinced themselves that they had to keep the pair apart as long as humanly possible, no matter how they had to contort the story-lines (and defile the characters) to do so..

  3. From watching season 3...I truly think Ann Marcus wrote Val the best. She was naive, yet had backbone..and wasnt so easily gullible. I think the first 4 seasons showed Val as a fairly well balanced character...not a victim nor village idiot.

    I do think the val/gary/abby triangle couldnt start till mid season 3 sue to abby grieving her brother, getting hwr kids back, and making her ex husband pay..while Val had to focus on school and writing her you had to show Val being too much of a wet blanket toward gary in the early episodes. It is interesting to see Val and Abby being friendly..having coffee and having heart to hearts. Abby causing havoc on the cul de sac worked because the characters welcomed her into the inner circle...then Abby made her move with causing trouble. Just like Jill in season 9/10...Abby wasnt the typical baddie hired to cause trouble.

    Oddly Abby thought Val was stronger then anyone else, and didnt treat Val with kid gloves like everyone did.

    Season 3 was the season whwre David Jacobs vision truly worked...Very Ingmar bergman esque in the three main plots you mention.

    Sadly, Ginger isnt given much to do though the scene where she lets Karen hold her newborn baby and sensing that is the key to Karen being able to express her grief said a lot. You didnt need the writers to say anything...they were able to show you..that Ginger knew more then people assumed. A shame she didnt get a lot to do especially given snippets of her backstort (controlling mom, forced to get an abortion, two sisters that looked up to her.)...i do think ginger would have had tgoughts on Laura wanting to get an abortion given her history...moreso then Karen.

    1. I agree: Ann Marcus had a great handle on the character of Valene -- and on how to use Joan Van Ark. It's so nice when Marcus returns to the series late in Season 13 and devises the Sumner bio as a story-line for Val -- and you see Van Ark able to restore some of the character's original toughness and drive. I've always wondered, if Van Ark had remained with the show for Season 14, what Marcus had planned for her, because she so clearly loved writing for that character; alas, when I spoke with Marcus's colleague Lisa Seidman, when I did my write-up of the final season, she couldn't recall what the writers had planned for Val.

      You're right, of course, about the slow build of the Val-Gary-Abby triangle; it couldn't happen until the pieces were in place -- until Abby had gotten her kids back, and Val started to pursue her writing career. It's those slow builds that make Season 3 so rewarding, even when there are fits and starts along the way. I'm forever grateful that, when the writers started to have Abby make her move on Gary in Season 2, they instantly pulled away from it. None of the affairs in Season 2 have any weight: Richard with Abby, Kenny with Sylvie, Gary with Judy. Everyone just hops into the sack with everyone else. Season 3 keeps you waiting, and when the pay-off comes for Gary and Abby, in "Acts of Love," it feels huge. It feels earned.

    2. Will you be soing a season 8 write-up...that season was always fascinating because it wad the first season of Latham and company in charge...and it seemed like a transition season to me (ironically Val had some good scenes..and wasnt that the only time outside of season 13 that she and Sumner were in a story together?)

    3. It's funny: I never intended to do multiple Knots essays. When I started this blog, five long years ago, I was going to write about favorite seasons of various shows, and I started with this essay: Knots Season 3, as it was an underrated season I quite liked. Then one of the folks who comments here occasionally, Knots blogger Brett Roberts, asked about my admitted affection for Season 14, so I decided to write it up. And then at some point, another commenter, Anthony Host, said he'd like to see me take on a season I didn't particularly like, and I settled on Season 7. As it turns out, my Knots essays are easily my most popular, as well as the ones I most enjoy writing, so I suspect I will indeed cover every season at some point. And as I am always more than willing to take suggestions from the folks who visit here, I am officially fast-tracking my essay on Season 8. I'm actually just in the midst of writing up Season 1 (I wasn't sure I'd have enough to say, with only 13 episodes, but it seems like I do), and then I'll tackle Season 8. It's one I haven't seen in a long, long time -- it'll be a nice change of pace for me.

  4. What's interesting about Season three is that it almost got the show cancelled. Commercially, it dipped significantly to below #40 in the rankings and rumours are that the only reason it came back was because Jacobs created DALLAS, one of the top shows on the air at the time. And of course, it could not come back in the same vein. Therefore, the lack of commercial success of this season causes the direction of the show to fall victim to the trends in the genre at that specific moment in time. Dallas was the buzz-iest show, I’m pretty sure Dynasty came on board that year, and Knots’ was simply behind the trend, and needed to adapt to survive.

    What’s interesting about Knots’ is how significantly it does reboot itself throughout its run, and one could argue that the creators liberal attitude to the shows branding is precisely what allowed it to run so long. I think it’s quite a rare feat, especially nowadays (although I’m open to recent examples). Can you imagine THIS IS US turning upscale, more outrageous etc in its fourth season and straying away from its central concept? I certainly can’t (of course that would be more difficult). And nowadays, shows would more likely be cancelled then dare change its brand.

    Anyway, I digress. From a subjective viewpoint on the quality of the season - I think it is fantastic, but I only found it so once I knew the outcome of the journey (i.e. when re-watching). I believe as many of you are saying, outside of the bookends of the season, the middle portion is frustrating to watch when the three continuing stories become interrupted by stand-alone episodes, because you want to know the outcome. I guess that speaks volumes about the intensities and emotional pull the three main threads have. A similar structure of storytelling is deployed in season two, yet it’s all broadly so superficial so you don’t really care when it’s interrupted. Only once I knew the journey inside and out, my patience increased and I could start to appreciate the character driven stories being woven in between the ongoing threads.

    1. Season 3 is indeed an anomaly, because so many of us love it -- but only once it's over. But as you're watching, the first time through, it's a bit baffling and annoying, specifically -- as you say -- because the three continuing story-lines are packing so much emotional punch that you hate to see them interrupted. And yet, although I know I should be more critical of it, I can't: my love affair with Knots began with those last eight episodes of Season 3. It was everything I had hoped the show would become -- and then, at the start of the next season, that vision started to vanish, to be replaced (after about a year) by something I loved just as much. It's funny: I've had a lot of time on my hands recently, and have already written up Seasons 2, 10 and 13, and I'm just staggering the posts a bit -- but I am absolutely forgiving of Season 3 in a way that I am not of Season 2. Hopefully, once I post that write-up, my reasoning will seem cogent.

      It is always funny to me how, in the eyes of the creative and production team, quality is so often seen in terms of ratings. In all the interviews I've seen with Jacobs and Filerman, they disparage Season 3 ("that was a hard one for us" "we struggled"), but I suspect the fact that the ratings fell so bad (and I don't remember how much of that was the new, ultimately aborted timeslot) -- and that the show almost wasn't picked up -- clouds their view of it. Those final episodes absolutely nail what they wanted to do with the show. They deliver on the promise of the premise. ("The promise of the premise" -- jeez, I sound like Danny Kaye...)

    2. I completely agree with you with this season. I often wonder if I do give it more credit then it's due. But those first two and last two episodes? As great and 'Knotty' as the show ever is.

      I do however, have a very unpopular opinion! I prefer Season 2's "Moments of Truth" to Season 3's "Night"... and I realise by even typing that, some people will never take my opinions seriously ever again :) I just felt like there could have been a slightly lower-key way to frame his breakdown, one that didn't involve a SWAT team. In a way, the emotional undercurrents of Richard and Laura's story felt slightly cheapened by the theatrics of the 'hostage situation'... season 2 obviously didn't have that problem.

      I'm very excited to hear about your thoughts on Season 10. To me, it is the true vision of L&L's version of the show; it's clever, funny, and extremely knotty in every way.... And, from a commercial standpoint, the show improved in its ratings where every other soap declined (PS. I know commercial ratings have no bearing on the quality of a show, believe me... but I always find ratings so interesting, as well as the TV landscape in general in those days. Shows lived and died on those numbers). I think without their successful pivot and reinvention in season 9 and the strength of 10, the show would not have survived into the '90's.

    3. I wouldn't worry about your "unpopular opinion" with regard to "Moments of Truth" -- I'm sure there are other fans who prefer it as well, and I suspect I've printed many opinions much more controversial. :) I confess I find "Moments" pretty much unbearable, whereas "Night" is one of my favorite Season 3 episodes. I guess I see it differently from you -- I don't actually find that the presence of the SWAT team and the police diminish or cheapen the human drama at its core. Pretty much all they do is rescue Jason; otherwise, it's still up to Richard and Laura to reach an understanding -- and in particular, for Richard, who's gone way beyond rational behavior, to have that one moment of clarity where he realizes what he's doing to the people he loves the most: that ability to look at himself and see himself clearly that he spoke about in "Best Intentions."

      Season 10 is next up on my list; just putting finishing touches on it, and will probably post in a couple of weeks. I actually refer to the ratings rise quite a few times (in fact, I lead with it); I'd find it hard to discuss Season 10 and not mention the ratings, as it's become part of the "mythology" of the season. (I've also been a ratings geek since I was in my teens.) When Season 10 first aired, I remember grabbing USA Today every Wednesday to check out the ratings chart, and being so delighted as the numbers kept rising, particularly the spikes during the weeks L.A. Law was in reruns. (In a similar fashion, during Season 5, I'd pick up a copy of Variety each week to see how the show was faring, and was so pleased that it was bringing in so many new viewers each week. In those days long, long before the internet or social media, it made me feel part of a "community," of people who were discovering the show and loving it as much as I was.)